During the late 1940s the pole fishing method was introduced into the local tuna industry. It was a very energetic but effective method of fishing. Most tuna caught by this method were the Southern Bluefin.
When a school of tuna were located they were stirred into a feeding frenzy by scoops of bait (usually yellowtail) thrown over the side of the slow-moving boat.
Standing in small caged platforms placed over the side and stern of the boat the crew were armed with 6 to 8ft bamboo poles to which a barbless feathered jig was attached by a 3- to 4-foot length of rope and very heavy nylon line (an example of a pole is on display in our local museum). When the school of fish were following the boat chasing the bait which had been thrown over the side, the crew would lower the jigs into the water as the boat slowly swept around in a large circle.
The jigs in the water resembled the baitfish, so on a strike, the fishermen hauled back propelling the fish over his head and onto the deck behind him where its thrashing about dislodged the jig. The fisherman then casts his lure back into the water ready for the next strike which could be immediate.
This backbreaking activity went on until either the fish went “off the bite” or the deck needed clearing, where the caught fish were put down into the fish rooms. A very productive but exhausting method of fishing.
The size of these fish ranged from 20 to 90lb. The larger fish over about 50lb were “double poled” where the jig was attached to 2 poles and on a strike the fish was swung onto the boat between the 2 fishermen.
Sometimes when the fish went “off the bite” a different method of poling was used. The feathered jig was removed and replaced with a bare live bait hook on which a live yellowtail or “yakka” was placed. The same procedure then took place. On occasions when the fish were “off” thrashing the water with the pole tip producing foam on the surface also brought on a strike.
From the mid-1940s until the mid-1970s, during the “seasonal run” (July to November), hundreds of tons could be caught in a single day.
When the “run” was off Bermagui, up to 50 pole boats could be tied up overnight or during bad weather in the harbour and it was sometimes possible to cross from one wharf to the other jumping from boat to boat. Larger boats up to 100ft that could not enter the harbour would anchor in Horshoe Bay.
A tuna canning factory was established on the steamer wharf in the mid-1950s and closed in 1960. It operated under the label of “Cee Dee” and produced special recipes such as “tuna chicken” and “tuna ham”. The tuna that could not be processed here were sent by truck to larger canneries at Eden operated by companies such as Kraft and Safcol.
Small aircraft were used by the larger canneries to find schools of fish for the boats that were fishing for their company. It was very competitive and many a fight evolved over the “rights” of each school. The general rule was first on the school had the “rights” but if the school was lost it was “fair game” for anyone. As the schools some timed “spooked” or dived and came back to the surface further away it was a race to the school.
It was estimated that during the season up to 15 tonnes or 2,000 fish were caught daily.
A “Tuna Festival” was held each year from 1958 to 1962 to celebrate the prosperity this event brought to the town.
By the mid-1970s, large purse seine net boats arrived from South Australia and basically caught out the larger stocks of bluefin. These boats would ring a large purse type net around the patches of fish trapping them and just bail the fish into their boat which could carry up to 100 tonnes.
From the 1980s, the Government put a catch limit on the bluefin with a quota system and a restriction on the number of boats.
The method used to catch bluefin since these days has been by “longline” where hundreds of hooks are baited and attached to a main line which can stretch for kilometres usually set wide off the coastline.